Tuesday 26 July 2022, 18:00

Samoan mums with World Cup dream seek to leave a legacy

  • Alisa Osborn feared the birth of her son meant the end of her footballing career

  • I was told I was too old, too big

  • Osborn's Samoa reached the OFC Women's Nations Cup semi-finals with the tournament doubling as FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying

The birth of Alisa Osborn's son, Ezekiel, 18 months ago opened the door to motherhood but she also feared it signalled closure on her footballing ambitions.

“I was told quite often that once I had a baby that would be it. I was told I was too old and too big as an Islander to play football again.”

Yet, the 28-year-old midfielder made her international debut for Samoa in a 2-0 win over Tonga in the OFC Women's Nations Cup two weeks ago and is hoping that her example can inspire other players that motherhood and football are possible, albeit that she accepts just how challenging that can be.

“I can’t believe I gave birth a year and a half ago - he’s grown so fast and yet I’m playing 18 months later and still doing my post-natal pelvic floor exercises,” she laughs.

The Samoan Women’s National Team have just lost at the semi-final stage of the OFC Women's Nations Cup after Papua New Guinea progressed at their expense to the final of the competition, which doubles as a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifying tournament. Despite the defeat, the journey is a triumph for Osborn. Hawaiian based Osborn, whose father hails from Apia, had hopes of representing Samoa for more than 8 years but various factors over time thwarted her opportunities - and then came the birth of her son.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to do it - everyone said it was motherhood or football. But I thought if anyone were to tell my son that he couldn’t do something, I’d tell him to prove them wrong. So that became my motivation. By April I’d decided I’d do everything to make this team.”

That included paying her own way to fly halfway across the world for a trial in a training camp held in New Zealand. The versatile midfielder has not only juggled motherhood but has also had various injury issues to contend with; there was a hamstring issue while in camp and then a positive Covid test upon arrival in Suva.

“It hasn’t been easy. But the turning point for me was the legacy I wanted to leave for my son and for the next generation of Island players.”

She says more aid is needed both financially and mentally, especially in Island nations where large families are the norm and women often adhere to traditional maternal roles.

“As Islanders we value family but then we also value dreams as a family - if one has a dream then we all have that dream collectively. This is no different.”

Osborn says it wouldn’t have been possible without the immense support of her family, though questions whether FIFA and Oceania are doing enough to help.

The individual at FIFA tasked with ensuring that support is delivered, together with her team, is FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer, Sarai Bareman.

Born to a Dutch father, and Samoan mother, Sarai represented the Samoan national team, before later becoming the Samoa FA Chief Executive between 2011-2014. In her role at FIFA, who she joined in 2016, Sarai has overseen the launch of FIFA’s Women’s Football Strategy and a suite of eight women’s football development programmes, continuing to develop women’s football globally, as well as crucially, women IN football. Over the last 18 months, FIFA’s Women’s Football Division, in collaboration with external world-leaders in their respective fields, have focused their efforts among other topics, on Female Health: the need to train, develop and prepare women as women. FIFA’s Female Health project aims to address the lack of research and resources available to female athletes and empower all female football players to achieve an optimal stage of readiness. One specific pilot programme - Women’s National Team Preparation – has seen FIFA support Member Associations in the OFC region with their high performance practices. This has included the provision of external experts (e.g. sports scientists) to work individually with each MA and strengthen their women’s national team preparations.

The inspirational mother feels lucky to be rooming with team-mate Shontelle Stevens, who returned to international duty after giving birth to three-year-old Kyla. The players have been able to offer emotional support to one another since they each appreciate the complexities of the journey they have been on.

“When I saw Shontelle singing the national anthem I started crying - I know what that moment meant for her as a mother - the sacrifices she made to be here,” says Osborn.

Stevens, who plays as a defensive midfielder, battled post-natal depression and stepped away from competitive football for almost two years.

“I had a difficult pregnancy and put on about 20kgs afterwards,” says Stevens. “I couldn’t move like I used to, I was battling depression and I didn’t think I’d ever play competitively again."

Then an innocuous text to come have a kick around with some friends changed everything.

“Kyla was almost two. I remember going down to the park - laughing and having fun, it reminded me of how much I love football, and what it had given me. That’s when my focus shifted. I think football saved me.”

Despite this being her third international tournament with Samoa, it has been “by far the hardest”.

She’s had to leave Kyla behind in Auckland and hopes in the future, federations will have more funding to support players being able to travel with their children, a message echoed by the Samoan Football Federation.

“I’ve missed out on a lot of time with Kyla leading up to these qualifiers. You start to question whether it’s worth it. Now I’m here and my daughter's watching me on TV. It makes me want to be better - having her know that if mummy can chase her dreams, then so can she.”

Stevens, whose family hails from the village of Moata’a, says more needs to be done for players in her position.

Samoan women's national side

“There isn’t enough out there on mental health; how mentally challenging it is to be away from your child or dealing with the changes to your body postpartum.”

For both mothers the risks have been worth the reward. Meanwhile Osborn’s family and friends rallied together to raise funds for her husband and son to fly over this week.

After eight long years of dreaming, her international debut was everything she imagined it would be. “Now I just want to play more,” she laughs.

Key objectives

FIFA will achieve its objectives by executing a five-pronged strategy to:

Govern & lead … strive for gender balance

Every MA will have one spot on its Executive Committee dedicated to the interests of women and by 2026 have at least one woman seated, while by 2022, at least one-third of FIFA committee members will be women. Strengthen and expand the Female Leadership Development Programme and improve professionalisation and regulatory oversight.

Educate and empower

Address and bring focus to specific social and health issues and reach out to NGOs and government stakeholders to develop sustainable projects that improve the lives of women.

Develop and grow … on and off the pitch

By 2022, have women’s football strategies in 100% of member associations, and by 2026, double the number of MAs with organised youth leagues. Expand football in school programmes, create elite academies and increase the number of qualified coaches and referees, vastly improving access to the game for girls.

Showcase the game … improve women’s competitions

Optimise regional qualifying for FIFA competitions and develop those events to build top-level players at a young age. Advance and launch new international competitions and improve the professional club framework.

Communicate & commercialise … broaden exposure & value

Advance awareness of top female athletes and raise the profile of women’s football by enhancing engagement, harnessing technology, implementing a distinct brand strategy and using role models and ambassadors as well as a dedicated Women’s Legends Programme. By 2026, launch a Women’s Football Commercial Programme.